Keynote speech by Anders Gyllenhaal
The News & Observer
Keynote remarks at the Pew Center for Civic Journalism luncheon,
August 10, at the AEJMC convention in Phoenix.
By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
The Pew Center for Civic Journalism annually has created a major opportunity for journalism educators to hear from a respected editor about what journalists, as chroniclers of our daily life, need to do for today. And what journalism, as a critical craft in a self-governing society, needs to do for the future.
In part, we hope to help journalism programs develop fresh and useful training for tomorrow's reporters and editors, producers and news directors. We also aim to shine a light on new areas for journalism research.
This year, we were honored to hear from Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., who addressed more than 100 educators attending the AEJMC Convention.
Gyllenhaal cited a dozen areas where journalism schools and news organizations need more experimentation to prepare for what's coming. From warehousing public records to researching the news, from pushing technology to mapping communities, from helping public discussions to searching databases, the opportunities are vast for the intersection of journalism and new technologies.
"In the same way that medical schools, science departments and business schools lead their industries with applied research, there's more need than ever before for true research and development in journalism," Gyllenhaal declared. "How do we take these concepts and make them work in the newsroom?"
Gyllenhaal is no stranger to innovation. He was an early experimenter in 1996 with a coalition of North Carolina news organizations in building issues-oriented election coverage called "Your Voice, Your Vote." That coalition has since refined its efforts through two more election cycles, including 2000. And Gyllenhaal is no stranger to quality journalism. In 1996, while he was managing editor, The News & Observer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service for covering the environmental and health risks of the state's growing hog industry.
We are pleased to share his thinking with a broader audience.
"What's Coming? Will We Be Ready for It?
Equipping Journalists for the New Communications Era"
By Anders Gyllenhaal
Executive Editor, The News & Observer
Let me start out with a story that goes back about a decade ago. Right at the end of the '80s in my newsroom in Raleigh, a kind of fever swept the staff over the power of computer-assisted reporting. It began at our paper with just a couple of reporters who recognized the enormous change under way as records of every kind migrated to the computer and how this made it possible for newspapers to do a level of original research.
Our newsroom thought this was going to change the world of journalism overnight. We started collecting and analyzing all kinds of records, from crime to traffic stops to health-care costs. For a while, we tracked which staff members had done how many computer-aided stories and put the list up on the bulletin board as a sort of United Way-type fever chart that was meant to encourage even more use.
It's fascinating to look back 10 years later on what has happened to computer-assisted reporting. This tool does, indeed, deliver a kind of wallop that has helped produce some of the strongest stories of the past decade: The Washington Post's powerful series on police homicides last year, The Miami Herald's voting fraud piece, Newsday's work on the TWA crash, the Seattle Times' piece on Boeing jets two years earlier - all Pulitzer Prize-winning projects that used computer analyses to find their way.
But for all the promise of computer-assisted reporting, routine and widespread use at newsrooms has come only very gradually - and really not at all in many of the smaller and medium-sized newspapers across the country. p>
The answer to why that is has a lot to say about how our profession is faring in the digital era - not just when it comes to this one tool - but on the whole array of technical advances that are changing the information business at a head-spinning pace. To put it another way, if our newsrooms have such trouble using a tool with this much potential, how are we going to do with the more experimental and difficult developing technologies that, I think you can argue, stand between where we are and where we need to get over the next decade or so?
Before going any further, I should throw out some disclaimers, starting at the very top: The title we worked out for this talk was one I've come to worry about: "What's coming: Will we be ready?" It sounds like something you read on a sign held by one of those bearded men in a New Yorker cartoon. We don't need to get into how much confidence you should have in anybody who talks for too long about the future in our business.
Instead, I thought I'd try to tell a couple of stories but mostly ask questions. Not about every one of the many future issues we can see coming at us (from convergence to credibility to new media issues). But about this single piece of the puzzle that is how the news part of the newspaper struggles with technology.
Let me start off with the good news. An interesting thing has been happening this past year: Despite all the doomsday predictions about our trade, the newspaper business is suddenly being recognized as one of the strongest pieces of the media.
I don't know how many of you were at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in April, but there was a feeling of hope and confidence unlike anytime in the past decade. Even from the point of view of Wall Street - which, of course, plays a huge role now in the fortunes of newspapers - you can sense a sort of startled look on the faces of the analysts this year. Have you noticed all the stories in the past month or so? "Newspapers are back in vogue," read the headline of a Toronto Globe and Mail story last week.
All of a sudden, forces that were working against us seem to be in our favor. Our competition in the dot-com world has stumbled. As the media have splintered, newspapers are holding onto (or at least not losing as much of our markets) as our competitors. We're also beginning to show some progress with our online sites and the whole concept of convergence, finding ways of competing with Yahoo and America Online.
I also wonder if we aren't finally getting some credit for the strong foundations that newspapers have built over this past century: the depth of our reporting, the commitment to communities, the principles we try to work under. People are talking about how newspapers might end up as the strongest piece of the mass media.
So here's question number one: What are we going to do with this opportunity?
There's no single answer because there's much work to do. But as you watch the changes coming, you can't avoid the conclusion that technology needs to play a much bigger role than ever before. It's how we take our strengths and reach more people. It's how we claim a part of the new economy, grab some of the appeal - the savvy, keep up with the new speed of things, find new and younger readers and, I hope, find some ways to deal with our slipping circulation. It's also one important way to attract more of the best young people at your universities.
So I thought I'd spend the second half of my time talking about some of the places where journalism schools and newspapers - with particular emphasis on newsrooms - should be doing a lot more experimentation to prepare for what's coming.
It's hard to overstate the vital role that databases are playing in the information business. It is the database that has fueled some of the most remarkable powers of the Web, from the global reach of these portal sites that are gaining so much of the traffic to the individualized appeal of Amazon.com. (Hello, Joe. We have recommendations for you in books, music and more.) Most of these are commercial uses. There are tremendous applications for the local newspaper, which could be building useful, searchable databases out of the reams of information we collect every day on everything from calendar items to school test scores to taxes and money issues. You can find a few papers that are working on this.
But question number two: Why aren't we rushing to figure out this concept? Is the paper you read, or work for, or send your best students to, really on top of this tool?
A lot of energy on the Web is going into the collection, analysis and tracking of public records, which used to be the sole domain of newspapers as we followed such things as crime reports, home sales, marriages, divorces, births, deaths. Many papers, mine included, spend hours feeding these records into print, publishing listings and then letting them evaporate from the system.
Another question: Would you personally make use of a newspaper's online site, for instance, that could give you a portrait of your own neighborhood crime rate or home sales or tax rates or let you compare the costs and quality of hospitals or restaurants or schools? While we're dawdling on this front, a massive industry, doing something like $10 billion worth of business a year, has moved into the data-warehousing business. It is safe to say that this is a competitor that has no interest in the principles of public records and government openness that newspapers have carved out in law in over half a century of pushing for freedom of information.
For decades, newspapers devoted a small corner of our newsroom to what used to be called the library, where we kept clips in envelopes and you even kept your voice down. Nowhere has the change been more dramatic in the past 10 years than in the potential for news research. News research ought to be the pumping, electronic heart of newsrooms. You can find newspapers where this is the case, but too many are still struggling with those envelopes.
One advance that flows out of news research are digital archives, a vital reader service, a possible revenue source and way to build online readership. The last estimate I saw was about 200 out of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the U.S. have digital archives. When The News & Observer finally put in a good system on our online site, the impact on traffic turned dramatic: 1.5 million page views, 250,000 searches and 159,000 articles downloaded since the first of the year. I can ask the same question of our newspaper that should be on all of our minds: What is taking us so long?
E-mail offers a powerful new way to communicate with readers and to deliver news. There are increasing numbers of places that will send you e-mail news updates, new developments on beats or topics you may be following. But how many newspapers are taking advantage of a technology to put out updates to our readers and potential readers?
New mapping software is a tremendous tool that allows us to create a whole new explanatory element to our reporting. From weather reports, to development, to the census information, modern mapping provides a whole new way of using this information. A good example of the power of mapping is the story The Miami Herald did that mapped the path of a hurricane, compared that to where the worst damage was, and showed that shoddy construction played as big a role as the storm. On the opposite end of things, there are impressive new service-type mapping abilities: Have you had a chance to look at Yahoo's mapping tools, where you plug in two addresses anywhere in the U.S. and it will give you detailed directions that you can e-mail to visitors or whomever? Question: Is this something newspapers can afford not to incorporate into our sites?
The once clunky, hard-to-use news groups have now evolved into a whole assortment of chats, forums and live interviews. We all watched from the sidelines a few years ago when radio discovered the power of raw conversation and turned it into the medium of talk radio. But online forums, in the next generation of this, can let us put a smart, off-the-news, newspaper stamp on public discussions that can also be imported in an edited form onto our news pages.
In quick succession, there are a number of other places for progress I'll mention in passing. They include the vast advances in online reporting tools our staff writers need; digital photography that's slowly making its way into our photo departments; the whole new hand-held computer area, such as Palm Pilots, that our competitors are falling over themselves to feed. The question: How well are newspapers doing to get their share of this?
Finally, the biggest technology challenge of all: How are we going to make the most of our online sites?
I list that last for two reasons. One is that there is already so much talk about our Web strategies, and, two, because so much of the rest of these fit into making our online sites the useful, interactive and innovative sites they need to be to compete. This is one piece of our technological challenge that our industry is taking seriously. The publishers of two of the nation's best papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are devoting themselves to Internet issues. You can find some impressive, imaginative sites that are competing. But those are almost all at the bigger papers, while so many of our newspaper sites have a kind of cookie-cutter sameness that we'd never accept in our newspapers.
Question No. 12
So here's question No. 12: Why is it so hard for newsrooms to use technology well? We write and talk about it all the time. What's at the top of the list of strategies of the Newspaper Association of America? Invest in technology. Why don't we do more to follow our own advice?
First off, it's hard to manage, particularly on top of everything else that has to be done to get the paper out. It costs a lot, mostly in people. It's safe to say that the newsroom culture can work against this. It's often at odds with the kind of across-the-board, dictatorial push it can take to put new technologies to work quickly. Not enough newsrooms have their own staffs devoted to programming and database work, so we rely on the same computer departments that are keeping our company systems going. Finally, all of this takes training, and while newspapers have started to put more emphasis on training, it's still mostly an afterthought. These are all good excuses, but how different are they than what every other industry in the information business is facing?
The second part of this question is how well are journalism schools doing in training students for the mix of traditional and technology skills that are needed? I don't know enough about journalism curricula to answer this thoroughly. I can tell you that, judging from the applicants we see, journalism schools are not where you want to be. Since you're always training the next generation of journalists, technology has to be at the center of journalism education without taking away from such fundamentals as how to write well. I don't believe we can expect newspapers to pull off the kind of technical revamping that we need if newsrooms and journalism programs aren't working together on this.
Another question I started to wonder about is whether the role technology plays in newspapers doesn't give journalism schools a new opportunity that hasn't existed before. In the same way that medical schools, science departments and business schools lead their industries with applied research, there's more need than ever before for true research and development in journalism. How do we take these concepts and make them work in the newsroom? How do we turn some of these commercial technologies into journalistic tools? Almost every university research project that comes through my newsroom is on more theoretical topics, like measuring credibility or studying the history of diversity.
What newsrooms are thirsting for right now are solutions for how to deal with this whole e-mail question, or a better approach to public records, or how about an online weather package that will help newspapers compete with TV? With so much need for training, why aren't more journalism schools providing continuing education in technology for newspaper staff?
That's probably enough questions for one lunch.
Let me end with one other story from my paper. It's about a reporter who has been on our staff for 29 years. His name is Pat Stith and he's given to sayings like, "That's no hill for a climber," meaning it can be done, or, "He's a real horse," meaning that person's capable. He's worn his hair in the same crewcut for decades and dresses pretty much the same way as he did when he started in 1971. In other words, if you watched him across the newsroom, you'd be unlikely to peg him as the answer to an awful lot of these questions we've been throwing around.
But if you were to walk up and sit down at Pat's desk, the future of our profession is on display. Pat taught himself how to use databases almost two decades ago. While he claims he has absolutely no knack for technology - again sort of like our business itself - Pat has figured out more about the computer languages of our government offices than their own systems folks, which is how he collects so much of their information and strikes such a mixture of fear and respect when he calls. So, to me, Pat has come to symbolize exactly how we prepare for the future.
The funny thing is that Pat's story isn't all that complicated. The instant he saw the power of the computer in reporting, he decided to do whatever it took to master this technology - and he eventually became a leader in the field and won a Pulitzer prize for his project on the hog industry in North Carolina. He hasn't thrown out the old ways for the new; instead he combines the two. Pat's reasoning on technology has always been pretty simple: "If I don't do it, somebody else will - and that's going to hurt me." Which is exactly how newspapers and journalism schools need to look at it.
This is what's coming. We can either struggle endlessly to catch up, which isn't working, or do what it takes to lead the way.
LEFT: Denise Barkis Richter, Professor of Communications, Palo Alto College, San Antonio, TX, offers an observation.
RIGHT: Jack Morris, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Adams State College, asks a question.
LEFT: Jay Rosen, Dean, School of Journalism, New York University, adds some thoughts.